Definition and Examples of Riddles

Person in a chicken suit crossing the road.
A Classic Riddle, "Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road?". Getty Images/Eric Chuang

A riddle (pronounced RI-del)is a type of verbal play, a question or observation deliberately worded in a puzzling manner and presented as a problem to be solved. 

Also Known As: enigma, adianoeta

Etymology: From the Old English, "opinion, interpretation, riddle"

Examples and Observations

  • "Young children love riddles. So do non-literate peoples. Riddles show up the playful nature of language in an easily manageable form. They are the earliest examples of literature in Anglo-Saxon England. Here is riddle number 65 from the Anglo-Saxon Exeter Book manuscript:  Quick, quite mum; I die notwithstanding.
    I lived once, I live again. Everybody
    lifts me, grips me, and chops off my head,
    bites my bare body, violates me.
    I never bite a man unless he bites me;
    there are many men who bite me.
    The answer requires listeners to sift through their experience, matching up this riddle with some specific object from their experience--in this case, an onion." (Barry Sanders, A Is for Ox: Violence, Electronic Media, and the Silencing of the Written Word. Pantheon, 1994)
  • Question: Why do birds fly south? Answer: It's too far to walk.
  • Question: What walks on four feet in the morning, two feet at noon, and three feet in the evening? Answer: A man (as infant, adult, and elder). (The riddle of the Sphinx in Oedipus the King by Sophocles)
  • "When referring to his own struggles against the seemingly insoluble problem of South African apartheid, Bishop Tutu quoted a favorite riddle: 'How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.'" (A. Colby and W. Damon, Some Do Care. Simon and Schuster, 1994)

Homographic Riddles

  • Why is a polka like beer? Because there are so many hops in it.
  • What's a frank frank? A hot dog who gives his honest opinion.
  • How do pigs write? With a pigpen.
  • Why was the picture sent to jail? Because it was framed.
  • Why would a pelican make a good lawyer? Because he knows how to stretch his bill.
  • "A riddle comes in the form of a snap joke, playing with similitude and incongruity in order to spark laughter; but enigma is a larger matter, and allied to the sacred. So at one end of the spectrum, riddles can be very feeble, silly or smutty (‘What goes in hard and comes out soft? Answer: Macaroni’); at the other, they can be baffling, like the kennings of Anglo-Saxon poetry, some of which have still not been answered, or the mystery of the Eucharist or the Trinity. Like nonsense verse and nursery rhymes, they are as ancient as anything ever told, and they occur in every culture." (Marina Warner, "Doubly Damned." London Review of Books, Feb. 8, 2007)

The Trope of Enigma

  • "If the plain-speech advocates mistrusted tropes, how especially they must have mistrusted the trope of enigma. Far from being a trope of revelation, it now appeared as a trope of obfuscation, doubly damned. At the same time [in the 17th century], posing or writing riddles gradually became a popular pastime in England and in France." (Eleanor Cook, Enigmas and Riddles in Literature. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2006)

Riddles and Race

  • "There is an old riddle that children still tell among themselves. It goes, "What's clean when it's black and white when it's dirty?" The answer: A blackboard. On the surface the riddle seems innocent, but it masks an awful truth: The reason the riddle works is that in this society black is synonymous with dirt, and white with cleanliness. Only by knowing this 'fact of life' can one appreciate the riddle. The contradiction is clear: Isn't it amazing that something that is black can actually be clean!? Obviously there are already powerful forces at work convincing our children that by being Black they are less human than Whites." (Darlene Powell Hopson and Derek S. Hopson, Different and Wonderful: Raising Black Children in a Race-Conscious Society. Fireside, 1992)

Aristotle on Riddles and Metaphors

  • "[I]n naming something that does not have a proper name of its own, metaphor should be used, and [should] not be far-fetched but taken from things that are related and of similar species, so that it is clear the term is related; for example, in the popular riddle [ainigma], 'I saw a man gluing bronze on another with fire,' the process has no [technical] name, but both are a kind of application; the application of the cupping instrument is thus called 'gluing.' From good riddling it is generally possible to derive appropriate metaphors; for metaphors are made like riddles; thus, clearly, [a metaphor from a good riddle] is an apt transference of words" (Aristotle, Rhetoric, Book Three, Chapter 2. Translated by George A. Kennedy, Aristotle, On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse. Oxford University Press, 1991)

An Interrogative Ludic Routine

  • "In Children's Riddling (1979), John H. McDowell defines the riddle as 'an interrogative ludic routine incorporating some form of contrived ambiguity' (88). Interrogative routines involve dynamics of power. McDowell explains that the riddler (the asker of the riddle) has 'final authority on the correct solution' but 'may not disavow a correct solution' (132). The riddle 'What's black and white and red all over?' has drawn such diverse responses as 'a newspaper,' 'an embarrassed zebra,' and 'a bleeding nun.' If the riddler wants to give the riddlee a hard time, he or she can keep the session going until the desired answer emerges." (Elizabeth Tucker, Children's Folklore: A Handbook. Greenwood, 2008)
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Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Riddles." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). Definition and Examples of Riddles. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Riddles." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 28, 2023).